Before her departure, Rice told US congress legislators that her trip "will focus heavily on rallying the support of those responsible Arab states to support the government of Iraq, to support what needs to be done there, to support, of course, also Lebanon and the moderate Palestinians".

 

Rice is scheduled to hold talks in Israel and the Palestinian territories on Saturday and Sunday.

 

She will then travel to Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Germany and Britain before returning to Washington on January 19.

 

The visit to Kuwait will include a meeting with foreign ministers from the Gulf states of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain, as well as Egypt and Jordan.

 

Promoting Bush's new war Iraq plan will be a an uphill battle throughout her trip.

  

In an interview with the BBC's Arabic television released on Friday, Rice said it was ultimately up to the Iraqi leadership to restore security.

 

Bush's plan "very much puts Iraqis at the centre of responsibility for dealing with what is their most urgent problem," Rice said.

 

"Their most urgent problem is that the population has lost confidence that the government of Iraq can and will defend them in an even-handed fashion, whether they are Sunni or Shia."

 

Iranian threat

 

Earlier, The New York Times reported on Friday, citing Rice, that the recent US raids against Iranian interests in Iraq were conducted under an order from President Bush.

 

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Rice said Bush had acted "after a period of time in which we saw increasing activity" among Iranians in Iraq, "and increasing lethality in what they were producing".

 

She was referring to what US military officials say is evidence that many of the most sophisticated improvised explosive devices being used against American troops were made in Iran, the newspaper said.

 

Rice was vague as to when Bush issued the order, but said his decision grew out of questions that the president and members of his national security council raised in the fall.

 

Administration officials now describe Iran as the single greatest threat the United States faces in the Middle East, though some administration critics regard the talk about Iran as a diversion intended to shift attention away from the constant violence in Iraq.

 

Washington on Thursday said that two aircraft carrier battle groups would stay in the Gulf for several months.

 

It was the first time Washington had moved two carriers to the region since 2003 when the United States invaded Iraq, a US military official said.